Photographer Profile - Marc Yankus: "I like the quiet city"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday October 11, 2016

When he was 11, Marc Yankus  moved to a new home on East 79th Street in New York City. Until then, he had lived in the suburbs.  “I remember my first day here, standing in the streets looking up at the gigantic, tall gray buildings and listening to the roar of the city and feeling elated,” he says.

Yankus likens New York to a forest — one of the enchanted variety: liminal and filled with the ancient accumulated wisdom of all the lives who have passed through it. “The buildings are like tall trees that have lived for a long time, and they have stories to tell,” he says. His own story features a stepfather who, Yankus said in a recent interview, often told him to “go outside and play in traffic” when he was young.

“It made me feel unwelcome, so I would go out and explore the city and stay away from home as much as I could,” he says. “I got to see a lot.”

One of the places Yankus often went was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a place that is also full of stories. “I’d walk through the American Wing and pretend I was going back in time,” he says.

In high school Yankus studied design and photography, often incorporating buildings into his artwork. He gave up photography in college, instead focusing on engraving collage. One series featured the Giants from Dante’s Inferno amid the streets and bridges of New York. He later returned to photography, however. His commercial work can be seen on the covers of books by Philip Roth, Jeffrey Eugenides, Salman Rushdie and other writers. His artwork, not surprisingly, focuses on New York and its architecture.

His latest series, titled “The Secret Lives of Buildings,” goes on view at the ClampArt  gallery in New York on October 13. The new images capture the city in what the gallery calls “uncanny moments.” The scenes are at once real and unreal, straddling the line between fact and fiction. People often say that certain buildings have character, but in Yankus’s images they become characters — each building embodying a unique history and hoard of experiences.

“If buildings had a consciousness,” Yankus says, “they could tell stories of the people who have lived and worked in them and outside them.”

In the photos, which are manipulated both through analog and digital techniques, Yankus invents a New York to his own liking. “I idealize the buildings and bring them to a new reality by correcting the aspect ratio and playing with the darks and lights,” he says. The scenes he captures are hushed and free of people, with landmarks like the Flatiron Building towering brightly overhead and sedate Upper West Side brownstones offering the promise of home. 

“I like the quiet city, I like being surrounded by these buildings and not having it be so congested,” Yankus says. A writer recently pointed out to him that there is no traffic in the pictures for him to play in. 

“That’s true,” he said. “I’m making a safer world.”

Evolving Interest in Reality

The new series actually represents an evolving interest in reality and a turn away from the dreamy soft-focus vistas of New York he once created. “I decided to put my glasses on,” Yankus says. In 2013 he began working on a series he called “The Space Between,” which captured the architecture of New York’s towers in sharp detail. Yankus blunted the effect, however, by applying a warm brown tone and a background texture to the images.

He started the “Secret Lives” series in late 2015. “The work started to get more complex and incorporated more of an environment, and I stopped using texture in the sky to silhouette,” he says. “Some of the buildings are altered and not completely real, but most of the work is the real deal.”

“While the subject matter and mood of his photographs have not changed in that time, the imagery has developed significantly,” says Brian Clamp of ClampArt. “Going from the soft-focus pictures of ten years ago to the elegant, hyper-detailed work of today, Marc has managed to create increasingly sophisticated, effective, and moving depictions of New York City. It is a pleasure to collaborate professionally with an artist over a long period of time and to watch the photographer continually develop and hone his or her technique.”

To capture the quietude he prefers, Yankus haunts the lesser traveled areas of the city or shoots early in the morning when few people are around. “For the photo of the Flatiron Building I went on a Sunday morning, when people weren't going to work,” he says. “I digitally removed the few people and cars that were there.”

Urban dwellers form a relationship with the architecture around them, and in New York, a city where people walk, buildings are particularly present. But it’s a busy city, and natives often walk though it with their heads down, lost in their own thoughts. Yankus is different. “I’m the person who is always looking,” he told Slate  recently. For Yankus, walking the streets is like visiting a museum. He said he chose to shoot one of his pictures (above) because the scene “had a Rothko feeling to it.”

“It’s a painting,” he said. “I like the quietness of that piece and the different shapes. It’s really about shapes, that piece.”

The Lost Building

The city that Yankus has invented holds one unquestionable advantage over the real one: “You can walk down the street and not get run into by someone on their cell phone,” he says.

Yankus does a lot of walking, shooting buildings with a Canon 5DS and a wide-angle lens that, he notes, “doesn’t distort too much.” Recently he spent two days exploring Riverside Drive on the city’s West Side, from 116th Street to 72nd Street. “I photographed so many buildings, I couldn’t remember later what streets they were on. I also couldn’t remember all their names or didn’t know the names,” he says. His solution was to go on what he calls a "digital walk."

“I went on Apple’s map program, in the 3D mode, and was able to look for the buildings I photographed,” he says. “When I found them, I turned on the label function and the name of the streets showed up.” 

He then turned to Google, learning not only the names of the buildings he’d photographed, but also their histories — when they were built, what architects designed them, who their original owners were, and so on. It’s his own effort at architectural preservation. “There’s a lot of information out there,” he says.

In the artist’s statement for his new series, Yankus writes about a building that did not survive New York’s never-ending cycle of building and demolition — the clamorous invention and reinvention by which the city sheds itself of the past. It was a Beaux-Arts apartment building on 79th Street that he would pass on his way to the Metropolitan Museum as a boy.

“I loved it at the age of 11, and then one day this beautiful ornate building was gone, and soon it was replaced by something ugly,” he says. “I find it unsettling when I’m in an environment that’s ugly.”